In his article, ‘Denying Nehru his due,’ Ashutosh Varshney (IE, February 14) has rightly contested the assertion of Prime Minister Narendra Modi that democracy is integral to the Indian nation and that there are many examples of its rich democratic traditions dating back to centuries. Modi’s braggadocio is inspired by the obsolete ideas of the historians who frequently spoke of ancient Indian “republican” polities before Independence as part of their project to unduly glorify ancient India and to explode the colonial myth of Indian despotism.
These polities existed in the Indus basin where they were survivors of the early Vedic tribes, and in the Himalayan foothills in eastern Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, where, inspired by the tradition of a varna-less egalitarian society un-oppressed by the hereditary monarchies in the remote past, they emerged as a reaction to the steadily growing Vedic orthodoxy.
This is borne out by the legendary account of the origin of the Shakyas, the tribe to which Gautama Buddha belonged. They are said to have descended from the Koshalan royal family which expelled its members — four brothers and four sisters — who went to the sub-Himalayan region where they married among themselves so as to maintain their purity of blood. The founders of the so-called republics broke away from their parent stock and moved to new areas. This may have been the case with Videha and Vaishali, which were monarchies transformed into “republics”.
The chief feature of the “republican” governments was their public assembly (santhagara) attended by the representatives of the tribes and the heads of the families and presided over by one of the representatives called the raja or senapati. All important issues were placed before and discussed by the assembly where decisions were taken unanimously. This has given rise to the much trumpeted notion of a republican tradition of ancient India and may have been the basis of PM Modi’s boastful statement.
But knowledge of history has never been a strong point of the RSS from whose ranks Modi has risen to become the prime minister. Had he any familiarity with ancient Indian history he would have known that the tribal assembly (santhagara) was dominated by oligarchs and that non-Kshatriyas, slaves and wage earners had no place in it. Members of the assembly bore the title raja or king; in the case of the Licchavis 7,707 rajas, all Kshatriyas, sat in the assembly and the head of their state was a senapati, the term denoting commander in a monarchy. Far from being a democracy, the Licchavi state was an oligarchy.
Further, the strict control exercised by the “republican” states through executive edicts and legislation exposes their undemocratic character. When, for instance, the Buddha visited the city of Pava, the Mallas, another contemporary “republican” tribe issued a decree that a general welcome should be accorded to him and any defaulter would have to pay a heavy fine. According to a Buddhist Jataka story there was a ban among the Shakyas on the marriage of girls even with a king of supposedly low status.
The gana of Vaishali formulated a rule which related to the marriage of girls in different wards of the city. Similarly, inter-dining among the people of unequal birth was also prohibited. Rules such as these were no better than those evolved by the Brahmin authors of the Dharmasutras. A closer scrutiny, for which there is no space here, would show that the governments of the Licchavis, Shakyas and Mallas possessed all the paraphernalia of a monarchical state. One would expect that the prime minister of the largest democracy in the world is better informed about the country’s past before articulating his effete and obsolete ideas and misleading the people of the country.